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The BIG FIVE Steamship Companies Covering the Whole Coast, the Yangtse and Beyond


Jardine, Matheson & Co.,/Indo-China S.N. Co., London 怡和洋行

Shanghai Steam Nav. Co. Ltd and other Russell & Co. 旗昌轮船公司

China Merchants Steam Nav. Co. 招商局輪船公司

​China Navigation Co. Ltd, London 太古洋行 (PDF files via China Nav Co tab above)

San Peh S.N. Co. and other Yu Ya-ching companies 三北輪埠公司


In the 1860s the British-flagJardine, Matheson & Co. and the U.S.-flag Shanghai Steam Nav. Co. managed by Russell & Co. became the largest two steamship companies on the China coast (and Yangtse River).  A change came in the early 1870s when the Chinese government established China Merchants S.N. Co. with a monopoly on Chinese flag steam shipping. At the same time the British entreprenuer John Swire established China Navigation Co. which essentially defeated Shanghai S.N. Co., the remnants of which were taken over by China Merchants. Following the lifting of the state monopoly on Chinese steamships, Ningpo entrepreneur Yu Ya-ching established the largest private Chinese company, San Peh. S.N. Co. and took over or established several other companies.


Jardine, Matheson & Co., London, undertook China coastal and river operations from 1852, including as


China Coast Steam Navigation Company (1873-81)

Yangtze Steam Navigation Company Ltd (1879-81)

Indo-China Steam Navigation Company Ltd (1881-1976)


A company whose ships and wharves were subsumed by the Indo-China Steam Navigation Co. was the German-managed Trautmann & Co. (1863) for which the fleet list is included in the FOREIGN section.

​The red PDF at right is a dissertation (no illustrations) "SAILING THE CHINA SEAS:  THE INDO-CHINA STEAM NAVIGATION COMPANY 1881 – c.1939" by Captain Peter Ballantyne. Kindly provided with his permission, it outlines the history of the company and provides much useful information. Click the first white PDF for our full illustrated fleet list of the Jardine, Matheson & Co. powered ships (initially published in 1973). The second white PDF covers the atypical career of the EASTERN TRADER of 1959.

Illustrated below are the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company's Lower River steamer YUEN WO of 1884, at that time the largest merchant ship built in the Far East (Chinese School painting, SK coll.), and express Calcutta steamer EASTERN QUEEN of 1950, designed by interred Jardine staff in a prison camp and depicted at Sydney later in her career (Roger Martin/NAA).  The Australian merchant ensign rather than the national flag at the foremast indicates that the master is an Australian merchant mariner. 













Shanghai Steam Nav. Co. Ltd  which was managed by Russell & Co., Shanghai, was founded in March 1862 and in its time was the largest steamship company in China. It is estimated that Chinese subscribed to between one-third and one-half of SSNC's shares. The company became the principal predecessor of the China Merchants Steam Nav. Co. Ltd into which it merged in 1877. An illustrated fleet list of the SSNC is in the PDF at right. Two SSNC ships are depicted below. First in a Chinese school painting is FIRE QUEEN of 1864, the largest steamer built in the United States especially for the Yangtse River (Northeast Auctions). In 1869 SSNC passed its very successful American sound and river paddle steamer designs to the Glasgow shipbuilder A.&J. Inglis, and with further improvements they became the basis of many successful ships built by that firm such as the KIANG YU and SHANGHAI shown further down this page. Second in an American painting is MANCHU (ex A.J. INGERSOLL) of 1866, a pioneer steamship operating on the company's key service between Shanghai and Tientsin (Peabody Museum).









China Merchants Steam Nav. Co. Ltd (CMSNC) -The state-owned Chinese company, which monopolized Chinese-flag steam shipping until about 1897: A short history followed by an illustrated fleet list in 3 parts (up to World War II; Shanghai 1945-50; and Taipei 1949-95) of the China Merchants Steam Nav. Co. Ltd are in the PDFs at right.   The General Manager of CMSNC Tong King-sing (Tang Jingxing) formed the Chinese Engineering & Mining Company (CEMC) to supply coal for the ships. The small CEMC fleet, which operated under foreign and Chinese flags, is covered in the Other Chinese section. The photographs shown below are of the coastal steamer MEI FOO of 1880 (Skinner, Inc.), the Inglis-built Lower Yangtse River steamer KIANG YU of 1883 (Graham Thompson coll.) which lasted until sunk as a blockship in 1938, and the coastal steamer HSIN CHI of 1892 (James Adamson coll., University of Glasgow).


​China Navigation Co. Ltd-John Swire & Sons, London, operated from 1873 as China Navigation Co. A detailed fleet list by Howard of all the CNCo ships was published in Dick & Kentwell, Far Eastern Fleets (Nautical Association of Australia, 1973) and updated material appears on this site. The list in the first PDF at right contains this information and a full selection of illustrations of the coastal and ocean steamers of this company from 1873 until 1941. Second is Yangtse River and Ningpo steamers, with a complete pictorial coverage. Third is the post-war ‘F’-CLASS cargo ship quintette and the  Indonesia trade 1946-64.The fourth PDF  covers the four ships of the post-World War II 'S'-class (built 1946-47). The fifth PDF covers the careers of the post-world War II passenger ships CHANGSHA and TAIYUAN of 1949. The sixth PDF covers the larger passenger shps CHUNGKING (1950) and CHANGCHOW (1951). The seventh PDF presents the passenger ships ANKING (1950) and ANSHUN (1951). The eighth PDF fully deals with CNCo's Taikoo-built 'C' and 'K' class cargoliners of 1955-62. The nineth PDF covers vessels operating in the Pearl River, including the ships of the affiliated Hong Kong, Canton & Macao Steamboat Co. (HCMSC). The tenth examines the career of CNCo's HUNAN of 1966 including subsequently under the Portuguese flag as NACALA. All ten documents contain many illustrations.


For the other CNCo ships we recommend the updated comprehensive listing at the Wikiswire site affiliated with the Swire organisation and the Historical Photographs of China site at the University of Bristol which houses the very large photograph collection of G. Warren Swire.


Shown below are an early Inglis-built Lower River steamer, the SHANGHAI of 1873 (John Swire & Sons coll.), a typical coaster, the HUNAN of 1895 (Warren Swire Coll., University of Bristol) shown cargo loading just before sailing from Hankow, the fast Shanghai-Tientsin steamer FENGTIEN of 1905 running trials (James Adamson Coll., University of Glasgow), and KIATING, a specialised upper Yangtse River steamer of 1925, capable of sailing upstream from Chungking, nearly 1500 kilometers inland from Shanghai (Wikiswire).



































San Peh-Yu Ya-ching-Despite the conditions which favoured the foreign companies and the state-owned China Merchants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Yu Ya-ching (Yu Xiaqing) was notable in building up and managing a number of strong steamship companies with varied shareholdings including ​

Ningshao S.N. Co. (1909)

San Peh S.N. Co (1914)

Hoong On S.N. Co. (1918) 

Ningshin S.S. Co. (1918)

Chinese-Italian Navigation Co. Ltd (1937).

An updated text history (no ship photos) of the Yu Ya-ching (Yu Xiaqing) shipping companies written by Howard and published in "Sold East" in 1991 may be found in the first PDF at right. Updated illustrated fleetlists of the five Yu Ya-ching-managed companies, including those vessels of the Hoong On S.N. Co. fully managed from 1918, may be found in the second PDF.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​Yu Xiaqing had the HSIN NINGSHAO, depicted below in an advertising poster, built in Shanghai in 1914 and operated her for Ningshao S.N. Co. (SK collection).  The final photo is one of his cargo ships SUNG SHAN, photographed by Uhachi Kinoshita in the port of Otaru in Hokkaido around 1940 with 'MARU' painted as an unregistered addition to her name as seen below (Photo by Uhachi Kinoshita/Otaru City Museum).​

Indo-China Steam Navigation
Jardine Matheson history
Jardine Matheson fleet list
Shanghai Steam Nav Co
Russell & Co
American steamer China
China Merchants Steam Nav Co
Scottish shipbuilding for China
Paddle steamer Yangtse
Inglis paddle steaer
China Navigation Co
John Swire
Butterfield & Swire
express northern steamer
Yu Ya-ching
Yu Xiaqing
Swire yangtse steamer
Swire paddle steamer
Tong King-sing
Tang Jingxing
San Peh
Chinese Italian
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